Director's Cut: Penny Lane ('Our Nixon')

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Monsters don't exist.

The past and its interiors are ultimately unknowable, and history so often seduces us to accept it in broad strokes because it knows how we thrive on the illusion that we're superior to the people who came before us and likewise fit to judge their actions with a certainty that borders on omniscience. It's so convenient to forget that even the most notorious villains were people before future generations distilled them into the sum of their most pivotal actions, individuals as complex and irreducibly human as any of their victims.

President Richard Nixon is naturally remembered for the Watergate Scandal and his administration's abuses of power, and while very few people are interested in exonerating him or revising history to suggest that he was a great leader, it's certainly easier to ignore the complexity of his character for the simplicity of his legacy. The truth of the matter is that he and those with whom he populated his cabinet, for all of their misjudgments and severely problematic ideologies, were men of strong consciences and even stronger bonds of loyalty. "Our Nixon", an extraordinary new documentary by Penny Lane ("The Abortion Diaries", and yes, that is her given name), humanizes one of the most infamous American presidencies without ever attempting to vindicate it, obliterating the didacticism that so often makes history easier to digest than it is to genuinely understand.

See, it just so happened that several of Nixon's closest aides were obsessive amateur documentarians – John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin ceaselessly filmed daily life in and around the Nixon White House in a way that would seem unthinkable now, even (and perhaps especially) with the recent proliferation of consumer videocameras. The footage they shot was classified for 40 years, but Lane and her team hopped on it as soon as it was made available to the public, and immediately began culling through the 500 reels of Super 8 film. "Our Nixon" is the candid and complex result of their work, a portrait of a President that's alternately empathetic and damning.

I recently spoke with Penny Lane on the phone to discuss her intentions with the film, and why Ben Stein is such a jerk.

FILM.COM: Nice to talk to you. How are you doing?

PENNY LANE: Good! How are you? How are you doing? Are you in California?

I am currently in the middle of Times Square.

I figured you’d either be in New York or L.A.

Yeah, why would any human be anywhere else?

I mean, I live in central New York on like a farm.

That falls under the purview of New York. I'd say that counts.

I'm so sorry about what you have to do when it's time to eat lunch.

We have a cafeteria, but there’s nowhere else to eat around here unless you want to go to Guy Fieri's.

It's so terrifying there! [Laughs]

It is. It is terrifying. And now for the most natural segue ever...  I was just watching "The Abortion Diaries".

Oh cool! So now for something completely different…

Yeah! I may not be the target audience necessarily, but I thought that was a really important thing to have made and to have seen, so thank you for that.

Thank you! I am actually really proud of that film, even though I made it… Gosh, almost ten years ago now, and made in graduate school for free, with no money. So it was just this thing I made very naively, so the fact I still like it is very impressive.

I mean, that's the kind of thing you should be making when you have no money, because all the money in the world would not have made any difference, I don't think.

Well, it could've had better production value. I think at that point in my life I hadn't even heard the term "production value."

I thought it was really great that you put the whole thing online. 

Yeah, well, people who don't put their short films online, I just don't understand those people. Like, what do you think you're gonna get from your short film besides people watching them for free on the internet? Like, are you saving them for your big licensing deal or something? So yeah, the internet is the greatest thing that ever happened to the short film format, don't you think? Has there ever been a better synergy? Like, "wow, that is a place to go to watch short films."

Was it any easier making “Our Nixon”?

No, I didn't think it was gonna get easier from there. No, I was not that dumb. I knew it was gonna get harder. Because "The Abortion Diaries" was a very simple film, you know? I got into a car with the cameraman, and we drove around for ten days and sat with women in living rooms and talked to them, and then when I got home, I had to edit a movie out of that, which was quite difficult. It actually took almost two years to make that thirty-minute film. Because making "a movie" that felt like a good movie out of just interviews is actually quite difficult.

I can imagine.

And I'm not gonna name names, but there's another film, if you were to read the synopsis of it, sounds exactly like "The Abortion Diaries", like, it's the same idea – a bunch of women telling their abortion stories. But to me, mine is better. Mine is better because I spent two years editing it! You can't just put twelve interviews in a row and then be like, "That's a movie." Do you know what I mean? It's like, "No, that's just twelve interviews." So honestly, I love post-production. I do not love production.

So there was no point during the production – or the post-production, I should say, which was the production – of "Our Nixon" where you ever considered adding anything to the archival footage that you had? Were you ever thinking of doing talking heads or anything like that?

No, no. No, no, no, never.

So if "The Abortion Diaries", which you cut down to like half an hour, took—

From like, oh my god, fifty hours of interviews…

…took two years, which to me seems like a perfectly reasonable amount of time. But how long… You took these five hundred reels of Super 8… First of all, how many hours of footage is that? And how long did it take you to go through it?

I'm pretty sure it's twenty-six hours of footage. If you do the math, each reel is three minutes long and there's about five hundred of them. I think it was twenty-six hours.

Were the reels presented to you in any sort of helpful order?

They came in the most random order you could imagine. It was like, you'd be watching it, and you'd be like, "Okay, three minutes of… It looks like we're in Hawaii, okay maybe it's 1969…" You know, trying to figure it out. And then it's three minutes of China in 1972, and then it's three minutes of Romania, and then it's three minutes of, like, you don't know what. It was completely random [laughs].

I mean, sometimes you get lucky and you see him on a beach or you see him in China. But most of the footage, I would imagine, doesn't give you much to work with in the editing rooms to figuring out where it comes from. So how do you pinpoint these things? Do you have an expert – or twelve – on hand to go through history or do you just try to get to the emotional truth of it?

What's funny is that it ended up not really mattering that much for the film. [Laughing] Like, it didn't really matter if you were in Idaho or Illinois in this particular moment, but part of… Okay, let me just explain how we did it, and then how we worked it in.

Please.

The first half of just watching home movies was just watching. Like, just taking it in and feeling it out and asking ourselves what kind of story do these home movies want to tell. And that was really as simple as it was. For a lot of people, that's what production is, right? They have a question. Like, "Let's go follow this candidate on the trail." They don't really know what they're gonna get – they just go. And shooting, for them, is like finding out what story is there.

Yeah, and you were very reactive to the footage you were watching. You were letting it tell you a story, rather than it just glomming onto preconceived political notions.

We did not have any – and I mean this so completely securely – we did not have any agenda, we didn't have an ideological agenda, we didn't have a story we wanted to tell. We didn't even really have that much knowledge about the subject. Okay, so the first round was watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, totally open-minded. Then, it was, "Okay, now we're starting to know what kind of a story we want to tell." And then it became, like, log this home movie footage, which was months and months and months. Like, trying to figure out where and what and who and chronology and what we were seeing and why, and all of that stuff. And no, we did not have a bunch of experts. [Laughing] It was me and Brian, and Wikipedia was very helpful. Wikipedia was probably the only reason we could do it. But yeah, we ended up creating a really detailed guide to the home movie collection that had as much information that you could possibly come up with. And then in the end, it didn't matter. In the end, like, none of that made it into the movie. [Laughs]

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And then you finished the editing process, and then you learn of these new tapes that allow you to have a much higher resolution. And I mean, I can't even imagine. I don't want to cause some sort of post-traumatic stress here,  but when you make that agonizing decision, how long does it then take to upgrade everything, frame by frame?

It's added almost $40,000 or more, actually. It would be a little more, I think, because we had to pay people to help us. Probably like $40,000 to $50,000 to our budget, and it added about three months, if not more, to our post-production process. It was a big change. It was a very small budget film, so that's like not a drop in the bucket for what the film cost. It was completely worth it. I mean, absolutely, completely worth it, and we always knew it would be worth it, but it was, "Oh, we couldn't believe this is happening." We didn't know that was going to happen! I mean, we had actually basically lost picture on the film, and then had to manually, by hand, replace every single frame of it. A nightmare.

Well, it has a really beautiful quality to it, aesthetically, the images, even on the online screener I was watching. It was definitely worth the effort.

Great! That's what it's supposed to look like, you know? And it was heartbreaking to us, because we had been working with what looked like crappy photocopies of great film, and we knew that that wasn't what they were supposed to look like, but you know, we were like, "It'll be fine." Like most people would just be like, "Oh cool." And you're like, "Okay, well, it looks cool, but it doesn't look like Super 8…"

And now Ehrlichman and Haldeman can get the credit as cinematographers they truly deserve.

Yes, I've been trying to work on that with IMDb, but everyone thinks I'm kidding. [Laughs]

If nothing else, that's to their credit. So when you were looking through this footage for the first time, to my understanding is that nobody really gave a thought about this for forty years. Was there a thought, while you were watching it, that you might actually stumble upon something that was monumentally revelatory? 

I don't think so. I don't think we ever really thought that. I mean, how many thousands of people have poured through the Nixon material that came out of that White House? I mean, it's just… I don't think we thought we were going to see anything monumental. Brian and I had both spent years and years making films, and many of them involving a lot of archival material, and Brian especially had used a lot of home movie material, and we just knew… I mean, look, home movies are kind of boring! There's no… They're always the same.

But they have such a nice, haunted quality to them that I think, from the very beginning, when you see Nixon walking on the beach… 

Yeah, the haunted thing was huge, right? Like, we actually tried to make a movie that didn't talk about Watergate at all. We wanted Watergate to haunt the film.

Right. It feels like a White House ghost story, in a way. 

Yeah, we wanted this future to haunt that present tense moment or something. But it was always very nice conceptually, but there was no tension in the movie at all, and there was no narrative drive without Watergate, so…

Well, I think you got the best of both worlds, because Watergate comes in at like 55 minutes into the movie, and I think that given that the film is 85 minutes long, you actually get pretty deep there without any mention of it.

Well, we wanted to honor the fact that that's the way it went. [Laughs] You know, there's a tendency to say like, "Nixon presidency equals Watergate." And you're like, "No! It equals many things." And then at the end, Watergate knocked them all out, it took over. Like, Watergate was the cancer that grew, and nothing else was left at the end of Watergate. No one remembers the Apollo moon landing or China or the incredible re-election victory, and all these things.

And that's what really resonated with me about the film. This isn’t a dry political document, it's ultimately a very human portrait, and the takeaway for me was just that so often, especially in politics, people are defined by the worst moments of their lives, the worst things they ever do. When you're approaching this footage for the first time, how do you put aside the weight of their historical reputations and just deal with them as people like you would anyone else?

Well, I don't think that just anyone could have, to be honest. Brian and I didn't have such a deep overriding bias that seems so crazy or daunting. Like for us, the idea that they were human beings was not that big of a deal.

You take that for granted. You're like, "Of course they're people."

Yeah, to some extent. But I do know that early on – and this is a really interesting story – we did see this one really talented editor that I just got the feeling was not going to be the right person for us, because the depth of her animosity towards these men was going to be a problem. Like, we already had enough problems. [Laughs] We need people who empathize with H. R. Haldeman, right? We need our editor not to be part of that problem. So it was always just very important to us that we weren't making a mean-spirited film. And there are a lot of people for whom being mean-spirited is the default setting when it comes to this subject. So, anyway, for us, it was not daunting at all.

We did wonder if it would work. And it's not about excusing the behavior of our subjects. It's just about trying to understand it a little bit differently, what could've led to these crimes, what could've led to this horrible trauma. So yeah, we didn't know if it would work, but yeah, we hoped it would. For us, it wasn't that hard. We're not from that era, we just don't have that much baggage at all. You wait though, David, like in forty years when some kid decides they're gonna make a movie about Bush, and I'll be like, "Rah! People don't know anything!" They're gonna try to make him look good.

It's probably true. I was reading that horrible Ben Stein piece today, and I was really glad that someone like him wasn't the person who thought to get ahold of the footage, because I think you only get one crack at it, and I think it definitely comes off as a human portrait, rather than a political one, and I think that's really important.

Well it's so stupid. I mean, it's so dumb, like, do you know how annoying it is, when we were making this film, to have so many different people – and not everybody, but enough people that it was the trend – to like, we're talking about it and explaining it, and at some point, a person would interrupt and be like, "But wait! Is this a pro-Nixon movie or an anti-Nixon movie?" It was like this kind of thing that was just like, "Really? Did you not hear anything we were saying? This is not what we're doing." And also, who the hell cares? Like, it doesn't matter. He's not running for president. He's dead. It's been a long time. Why are we still even talking that way? Like, let's just say I was making a pro-Nixon movie, which I wasn't. I mean, so? [Laughing] Like, what fact does that even have on the world? Like, who cares? You know?

It's a fair point!

I think Brian and I did not – and again, I feel like this whole interview I've been throwing out all the things we didn't know – but one thing we did not know was that we did not anticipate this intensity of feeling that Nixon still inspires. We were fascinated, right? We were fascinated, but in a pretty detached, intellectual way. We weren't fascinated in a way that made our stomachs hurt, which is still the case for a lot of people. People who see John Ehrlichman's face and their stomach hurts. You know what I mean? We didn't have that kind of reaction, and I don't think we really fully understood how many people did.

I think for me, the key moment in the film, if you could boil it down to one, is when a singer at the wedding of Nixon’s daughter takes the stage to protest. The whole movie has that detached "this happened and now we're gonna sort through it" feeling to it. It was very emblematic. 

Totally! And it's a really simple thing, really. We were like, "And then this happened. And sure, this happened too." You know? And I know that people are accustomed, in a documentary format especially, to be told what to think in a very direct way. But we are not doing that. Well, we do it to some extent, right? Like, okay, when Chapin loses his job, yeah we put some music in that kind of indicates that we think this is a serious and sad moment. So obviously, yeah, we're cuing certain kinds of emotional responses, but ultimately, like honest to god, I don't need to tell you what to think about these things. You are smart and you can figure it out.

In the beginning of the film, there is a discussion about what the American people are owed. I wonder, because all of these tapes… These people are dead, and you're calling through private moments. Where do you think the line is drawn in terms of what the American people are owed? Do you think there is a level of transparency in which the White House can function as an office that will also satisfy the curiosity of Americans?

No, I think that is an endless battle that will never be won and should be endlessly debated forever. And it is and will be, so I don't have to like, advocate for it. [Laughing] No, there's no obvious answer. But what they were actually talking about in that context was, Haldeman was saying, "Maybe the American people are wrong about Watergate." That's what he was talking about in that context. And there is this kind of sense in the film that there are all of these people who are trying to get Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin to say "We owe the American people an apology," or something. And they really won't do it, and that's as much a kind of fascinating sight of confusion as anything else that I could've possibly found in the project. I mean, they just think we got it wrong. They just think we got it wrong.

And I think that there's a lot of ways that their POV is worth hearing, and we were willing to let them speak about it, you know? And I hope that it's clear that we're not necessarily saying they're right or wrong, but you know, I do think they have a point. 'Cause basically I think that what the American people are owed by historians is complexity and nuance, not black and white fairytales where there's like angels and devils. That doesn't serve us at all. And that is a kind of way of talking about history where you assume that people are essentially really dumb. And I don't think people are dumb. I think people actually have an incredible ability to understand nuance and shades of gray in every issue, whether it's about government transparency or like whatever. We actually do understand those things.

Yeah, I think the problem is that movies have conditioned us to not expect those things or think in that way. And then you get reactions like Ben Stein's. 

[Laughs] People who want that kind of movie will just have to go to some other filmmaker, and say, "Give me what to think." You know, sometimes it's pleasurable, right? You're like, "I don't know what to think about this. Maybe this film will tell me. I'll watch, like, 'Gasland' and find out."

Right, right. "Now I have an opinion on this matter."

And it's fine for people to do that. I just don't wanna make movies like that.

"Our Nixon" opens in theaters on 8/30. Visit the official website for details.