Rooftop Films Filmmaker Profile: Penny Lane (Director – ‘Our Nixon’)

As years pass, historic figures appear less human and more legend; Richard Nixon has gone all the way to caricature. For those on the right, Nixon represents the tough but dowdy old school conservatives; to the left, he’s “Tricky Dick,” the wily cheating bully. The real Nixon was a more complicated character. Reading about Nixon today may spark startling revelations about some of Nixon’s remarkably liberal policies, or his undeniably villainous abuses. But nothing will reveal the truth about this complex figure better than his own staff’s home movies, artfully crafted here by director Penny Lane.

Culled from Nixon White House home movies, whether you like or dislike him, this engaging documentary is a wrenching portrait of a fallen man, and a unique and captivating time capsule from a more innocent era.  We spoke to Penny Lane in anticipation of ‘Our Nixon‘ screening as part of the 2013 Rooftop Films Summer Series, which will take place on Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens.

For More Information on Rooftop Films & ‘Our Nixon’ ClickHERE

Prior to the films production, what interested you in the Nixon presidency? How were you confident the raw archival footage (shot by Nixon’s staff) would make for a compelling narrative?
I was not particularly interested in Nixon or the era of his presidency before this project. The narcissism of the baby boomers, who now occupy almost every position of power and influence, has meant that a seriously disproportionate amount of attention is paid to the 1960s and 1970s in our popular culture. Someone my age (I am 35) has spent their entire life listening to an endless drone about Nixon, Vietnam, Woodstock and all the rest, sort of as if nothing else of interest has ever happened. So I am the last person in the world one would expect to make a Nixon movie.

But, then there were these amazing home movies, and I simply could not resist them. Brian (my co-producer, whose actually had the original idea for the film) and I were quite confident that the Super 8 home movies were fascinating, but as to whether or not they on their own made a compelling narrative – well, no, they didn’t. Not at all! So first, we spent as much time as possible just watching them, out of context, without initially knowing very much about the people, places and events depicted in them, to try to listen to what story they wanted to tell. And once we had decided what that story was, we set about positioning the home movies within a larger framework of news footage, interviews, White House tapes, diaries, etc., which of course involved a tremendous amount of research.

What are the specific challenges in producing a coherent documentary wholly from archival footage? During production, was it ever frustrating to be unable to film and/or interview your own subjects?
Well, you’re constrained to the historical record, so you can’t make (or ask) someone to say or do something you feel would really help your film. But that didn’t really bother me. Both Brian and I have made lots of films using found and archival materials, so the scavenger working method was familiar to us. There’s an element of chance and luck that I find exhilarating. And frankly, I am uncomfortable pointing a camera at people, so this is great for me in that way.

But Brian and I made it even harder on ourselves by deciding we would not use still images (i.e., photographs or newspaper headlines) or any kind of “reconstructions,” even in voiceover (i.e., having an actor read from Ehrlichman’s memoir, or having a single narrator). In part, we made these decisions because we wanted everything to feel as present tense as possible, but we also wanted to stay as far away from the audience’s preconceptions about the aesthetics and tropes of “historical documentary.” I don’t know why one would spend years of one’s life working on a film, just to make something that looks and feels like every other film. That just seems boring.

But there are, of course, plenty of challenges to this method; for example, there were certain themes and story ideas we were really interested in that we just had to let go, because we didn’t have the material to flesh them out.  That was a bit frustrating. And our editor, Francisco Bello, had to work really hard with us to construct a coherent and entertaining narrative out of all these fragments of history, without relying on the typical “historical documentary” devices. One of the reasons we chose Francisco was that he wasn’t just willing to take on these challenges; he was really enthusiastic about them, just as Brian and I were.

Our Nixon

It must have been hard, if not impossible, to approach Nixon’s presidency without preconceived judgments. What steps did you take to remain fair and objective? In what ways did your views of Nixon and his staff change over the course of production?
I am completely certain that each and every one of us knows too much (or just enough) about Nixon to have quite a few preconceptions. And we were actually counting on that and planning for it in the edit; we knew that our audiences would come to the film with a lot of their own thoughts on the matter. As did we, of course. But Brian and I were able to come to this with a lot more distance and “objectivity,” if we want to use that tricky term, than many others might have, because we just don’t have a dog in this race. We didn’t really care all that much about Watergate, or the anti-war protests, or any of it. We didn’t want to make sure that our viewers would walk away feeling indoctrinated into some particular ideological stance.

Certainly, as Brian and I got deeper and deeper into our research and our thinking, we developed all kinds of opinions, but we did try to keep ourselves out of it. Our approach was to set up the events and themes in the film as a sort of series of battles, and conflicts of points of view, many of which are perhaps irreconcilable in the end, but some of which maybe aren’t. We know our viewers will come in, at least the older ones, with their ideological side already chosen, and that they will root for their team along the way. But if the film is successful, there are moments where even those with the most rigid and settled point of view on Nixon will feel challenged, or will see something in a new light. That is our humble goal.

As far as fairness goes, we weren’t out to hang anyone, or to glorify anyone. We aren’t setting up your sort of standard documentary “pitched battle” where we are telling you who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and helping you out by cherrypicking the bits that make the good guy look the most good. In a given exchange – let’s say an interview clip where Mike Wallace challenges H.R. Haldeman – you may think that either Wallace is the correct party and the clear winner of the debate. That’s a perfectly fine conclusion, but it is your conclusion, not ours. I don’t think we included one line in the film if we didn’t think the speaker had a fair point.

Well, let me take that back… I can’t say “never.” When Nixon goes on his rant about how homosexuals are destroying America just like they destroyed Rome, we didn’t include that because he has a “fair point.” He definitely does not! We included that bit because it is insane, and insanely hilarious, and gives a sense of both his personal biases and the state of mainstream culture in the 1970s. It’s probably the easiest laugh, and thus the cheapest shot, in the film, and it was debated quite a bit in the edit. But it does serve a point!

Our Nixon

This film is as much about Nixon’s staff as it is about Nixon. H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Dwight Chapin – these names are rarely mentioned outside the context of Watergate. What kinds of new discussions do you hope your film will start about these figures?
It will depend what point of view each individual brings into the film. But as I said before, the film provokes some people to think about old ideas a little differently.

Have you noticed increased sympathy from audiences in regards to the Nixon presidency as a result of your documentary? How have audiences reacted to the film in general?
Some people say it makes them like Nixon more, and some say it made them like him less.  In general, people laugh a lot. Younger people say it was more interesting than they expected, which is my favorite comment. The response has been overwhelming to us, because we weren’t totally sure if anyone else would be interested in yet another movie about Nixon!

– Interview Prepared by David Teich

Our Nixon

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
RoofTop Films presents
@ Socrates Sculpture Park
3134 Vernon Blvd.
Long Island City, NY

This show is FREE and begins with Live Music starting at 7pm.
Facebook: /ournixon
Twitter: @ournixon



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