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SXSW Q&A: Penny Lane, Director, Our Nixon

OurNixon.com
OurNixon.com

Throughout Richard Nixon’s presidency, aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin filmed their experiences on Super 8 cameras. That footage was seized during the Watergate investigation and was forgotten for almost 40 years. Now, in the documentary Our Nixon—which played at the SXSW Film Festival this week—audiences will get a chance to see that footage for the first time. We sat down with director Penny Lane to chat about finding the tapes, using an all-archival format, and why this footage turns preconceived notions about the people behind Watergate on their head.

m_f: How did you find out about the footage, and once you found out about it, how did you actually get a hold of it?
Penny Lane: Brian Frye—we produced it together, and I directed it—heard about the home movie collection 12 years ago, and it was because he just had a friend who knew about it. He’s always been, and I have always been, interested in found footage, particularly amateur films or orphan films that weren’t made by professionals or have a funny story behind them.

So this was right up our alley. Brian didn’t know what he wanted to do with them but he knew that these [Super 8] home movies were there; no one had really seen them, because the National Archives had never made them accessible—they had never been put on video.

When we met in 2008, Brian mentioned it to me. But it was one of those things where it was clear that he’d been mentioning it to a lot of people, and I was like, “Are you really going to do anything with it? Because if you’re not going to do anything, I think I might. Maybe we should collaborate, so I don’t just steal your ideas.” So we started it together. The initial investment was scary in a way, because we’d never seen [what was on the film]. And we had to pay a lot of money to make the first video transfers.

m_f: There were approximately 30 hours of footage. Did you actually watch all of it?
PL: Oh yeah, many times. That’s the fun part. But we both didn’t know what to expect. I think we assumed that the footage would be more about Nixon, but it was very clear, almost right away, that it was really about the people holding the cameras. If there was a good shot of Nixon, we used it in the film. I mean, he’s there all the time, but he’s always on the other side of the press corps, facing an audience, but you’re behind him. Or he’s through a door, around a corner.

m_f: You used only archival material for the film. Why did that feel like the right creative choice?
PL: The only thing we added was some original score, some music and text. I think [we used only archival material] for a couple reasons. First, it’s an interesting challenge. But for this film specifically, I think the all-archival idea was really important, because I think that the film ended up being almost about the historical record, about what things get recorded and why, and what point of view different pieces of the historical record have.

We didn’t want the film to be about me and Brian saying, “Here’s what happened and what it means.” I definitely have a lot of ideas about what all of these things mean. But we wanted to present factually, as much as we could, what happened, and leave it up to people to see that there’s contestation of meaning there. Was Watergate a tragedy because a very, very bad group of people gained power in really icky, bad ways, and then abused it and traumatized American people? Or was Watergate a tragedy because Nixon was a great president who was taken down by a left-wing press that blew this whole thing out of proportion? People have totally different ideas about what the tragedy is. Or why it’s a tragedy. So we just thought that that was really interesting. The all-archival format lets you, instead of you imposing your ideas with hindsight onto history, experience it as it was experienced.

m_f: How much research did you have to do, then, into the events that happened in order to craft a cohesive through line, and to make sure people understood the context?
PL: A lot. But the good news was that I didn’t know much about the Nixon presidency. I don’t know much more than your average person, I think, of my age, so it wasn’t that hard to figure out what the entry point information had to be. It was good to start off being dumb.

But then, obviously, as with any documentary, a year later we’re way lost in the minutiae, and I’m like, “Oh we have to talk about that, because, you know, later in life, Ehrlichman…”

The amount of information that actually goes into a film is so small. It’s way less than a New Yorker article’s worth of information that actually makes it into a film, usually. So you start getting like all lofty and ambitious about all this crazy deep information you’re going to get in there, but 85 minutes does not hold that much. So it’s very cursory—you actually don’t have to know anything about Nixon or his presidency to kind of be able to literally sit in the movie and you should to be able to get, generally speaking, what’s going on.
Things like [Nixon’s trip to] China—the world-altering significance of the China trip—I didn’t know that. So we wanted to make sure that for things like that, people knew it was a really big deal.

m_f: You were dealing with a huge amount of material. What kind of stuff did you want to include but couldn’t?
PL: It can be really frustrating, because we also made other kinds of artistic decisions—like, we were going to stick to their real voices. [If] Haldeman wrote a memoir, I couldn’t just have an actor read the damn memoir. We were trying so much to avoid any kind of editorializing, even to the extent of like having to choose an actor to read or perform as Haldeman.

They were famous people, and they were interviewed a lot, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, when they were alive—but only ever about Watergate. Pretty much no one ever talked to them about anything else. We were trying to step just to the left of Watergate—acknowledge it but also try to say anything else about Nixon or his presidency. And we almost couldn’t, in a sense, because we were constrained by the historical record. If some journalist in 1988 didn’t ask a question of Ehrlichman that I wish he’d asked, oh well!
And that becomes another level of the film. You’re seeing the way that different people are shaping narratives, over a 40-year history. From the people holding the Super 8 cameras to the news secretary at the time, to the reporters of the time to the reporters later, everyone is shaping and trying to win a battle about, ultimately, the meaning of Nixon’s presidency, what’s his legacy, and what should we think about when we think about that time. And they’re literally fighting. In the film, and to this day, it’s still going on.

m_f: Was there anything, while you were going through the footage, that you found that really surprised you?
PL: What surprised me was how young the staff looked. I’m in my early thirties, and a lot of them just looked like babies. And that is just not what I pictured, when I pictured a White House staff. But I actually think that’s normal, I think probably a lot of White House staffs are very young people. And that blew my mind. You think to yourself, “People who have that much power, they are different. They’re somehow smarter, and more sophisticated, and more knowledgeable about the world.” But then you’re like, no, they’re 22, and this is their first job.

I think probably in any White House—I’m just guessing—that it’s a very kind of militaristic layout. It’s very ordered and it’s very precise, and you report to this person who reports to that person, the chain of command is very clear and it’s very important, and you can’t go outside that. So I think a lot of them … I think especially Chapin, because he was really young—they spoke about this in various interviews in their lives, that they feel that they were taking orders. So you get into that whole area of responsibility in morality. This is a bad thing to do, but if the President of the United States asks you to do it, do you do it? And I think that that’s an interesting moral zone. It’s not the subject of the film, but it is part of it. What’s the mindset, how do you end up doing the things they did? We always wanted to know the answer to that.

m_f: I was surprised by how much I felt for them. I didn’t know the names of the people who were involved, but I came at it with this vague idea of what happened, and the takeaway is that the people who did this were bad people.
PL: I was surprised how much I sympathized with them as well; at the beginning, I didn’t know that I would identify so much with Republicans working for Nixon in the ‘70s. So many things are different between me and Haldeman, but ultimately I really came to care about them. I think everybody who makes documentaries, in a sense, ends up kind of falling in love with their characters. And you have to actually fight that, because I kept catching myself sort of just falling way too far into believing everything Ehrlichman says, or really wanting to defend them. And that’s not my goal.

I’m sure certain people will think that the film still does it. But we really did everything we could to sort of present points of view without comment, and if you choose to read this Haldeman moment as someone who is stonewalling because they’re a criminal and lying, or you choose to read it as someone who’s pissed off at Mike Wallace because Mike Wallace is being a jerk, that’s up to you. I can totally see that, either way, and there are a lot of moments in the film like that.

m_f: There’s a scene in the film of Nixon calling Neil Armstrong on the Moon, shot by one of the aides, and it’s just incredible. It’s this very inspiring moment of American history that we’re all aware of, but to see it from that angle is mindblowing. And it’s also sad, because we don’t really do things like that anymore. What was it like to find that footage?
PL: What a moment, right? It’s one of my favorite scenes. I had never thought about [Nixon’s] relationship to the moon landing. You never think about Nixon. You think about JFK; you forget that, duh, he was dead, we all know that. But I never thought, “oh yeah, Nixon was president.” We loved that scene for a lot of reasons, but we especially loved it because it was one of those moments where you’re like, “God, I’m dumb…Nixon was president, dummy.”

[When I found it,] I was just like, “oh my God.” I was watching the footage, and it’s so fun because it’s all silent and the tapes aren’t labeled, they’re not in order; you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you don’t know where you are. It’s very disorienting. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s the Apollo moon landing. As experienced at the White House.” I was really excited.

m_f: If the tapes aren’t labeled, they don’t have dates on them, so how did you figure out what was going on?
PL: That was a huge project. It became this nerdy challenge for me; I loved it. I got really good at it. There are certain things we never will know; there are a lot of shots of Nixon arriving at airports, and shaking hands with people, or giving speeches, and you’re like, “it’s silent, guys!” What’s he talking about? No one knows!

So I would say, “It looks like Nixon is greeting a foreign head of state. I don’t know what that flag is. And I don’t know who that person is.” So I would literally freeze frame the flag, and Google “flag, orange, star, blue background.” And I’d find the flag—and then, of course, a lot of countries change their flags, but okay—and then it was like, this is not called that country anymore—so we’d find the flag and I’d be like, “Okay, who was the head of state, it looks like, based on the clips before it and after it it’s 1971, who was the head of state in that country in 1971,” and I’d be like, “wow! That’s Mobutu!” And then you’d look it up, and you’re like, “He’s a crazy murderous dictator!” I learned so much stuff that I had no reason to know, and now I’m an expert on so many weird things. Like who was the head of state in various countries around the world from 1969 to 1973.

They were really good at documenting a lot of stuff, so there was a lot of cross-referencing that we could do. So Haldeman kept a diary, which you hear a little bit about in the film. It was incredibly detailed—every single day: where they were, who they talked to. So you could figure out things. You could say, “Oh, okay, they went to Hawaii, and it’s July of 1969, and oh, it’s a Vietnam Peace Summit, and that’s the guy from South Vietnam.”

And I’m like, oh okay, now I know where I am. But they’re really just filming booby birds and stuff. They always film the important thing, and then a whole bunch of other stuff that’s not important at all. It’s charming. Like, the poop on the ground.

m_f: If you couldn’t place a clip from the home movies in context, did you use it?
PL: Oh, no, God, no.

m_f: So was it a relief to be able to say, “This is something I can put aside now because I don’t have any context for it so I can’t use it”?
PL: No. I think you could have made a very different film that was just travels with Nixon. To me, that was the most heartbreaking loss—they went to all these places, so there’s this incredible footage of Russia, of being a tourist in Moscow in 1970 and what that looked like. Or Iran, or Thailand. It’s just interesting to see their tourist footage. But it didn’t really add up to that much, and so we only use a tiny bit of it.

A lot of [the footage we couldn’t use] ended up in the closing credits, or the opening credits, because it was just [so cool]. Like the motorcycle-riding bear. That’s from the Moscow circus. There was an hour of footage, and we used two seconds of a bear riding a motorcycle just because we needed to show it.

I think we could use [a lot of the footage as] a DVD extra; there’s infinite potential. We have a lot of cool footage of things like Nixon playing the piano for Harry Truman’s birthday, and it’s really great footage but there was just no reason to use it in the film. And you can kind of do a people compilation, like all of the shots of LBJ are interesting, just because it’s LBJ and he’s always interesting.

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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
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Netflix

Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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