With The Reagan Show premiering this weekend, it seems like the right time to revisit this interview between Penny Lane and Brian L Frye, the director and producer of Our Nixon, brought back below from our old blog. Read Penny Lane’s recent interview with The Reagan Show directing team Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez for the IDA here.
When it opened in theaters and aired on CNN in August 2013 (find it on multiple platforms here), we asked the filmmakers to interview each other. When compared to Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’ The Reagan Show, the obvious similarity is that the two films share an interest in unseen, and surprisingly relevant, perspectives on former presidents. The similarities may end there.
While The Reagan Show draws from 1,000 hours of carefully orchestrated footage that the unprecedented PR machine of the Reagan White House collected, Our Nixon got its start with the discovery of 500 reels of intimate, Super-8 home movies, shot by Nixon’s closest aides, and perhaps never intended for a public audience.
The filmmakers behind these two films faced entirely different challenges, and each work reflects an exceptionally unique take on how to tell a contemporary story about our history. Here’s a recent post with more on The Reagan Show, Our Nixon, and three other films with innovative archival approaches.
Without further ado, here’s…
Director and Producer Penny Lane and Producer Brian L. Frye interview each other for the Cinereach blog!
Penny Lane (to Brian L. Frye): When you look way back to when Bill Brand, the film professor at Hampshire College who preserved the Nixon Staff Super 8 films for the National Archives, first told you about the collection, what made you excited about the idea of making something with them?
Brian L. Frye: I’ve always been a fan of amateur films, but their anonymity often makes it difficult to shape them into a coherent whole. The rich context surrounding the Nixon Super-8 films suggested that they would be capable of telling a story, even before I had seen them or had any idea what kind of story they would be able to tell. Of course, the story of the Nixon administration has such an archetypal dramatic arc that it wasn’t hard to imagine some of what would emerge.
PL: Have any of the ideas you had back then remained in the project, or is Our Nixon just nothing like what you imagined?
BF: I don’t think I ever had a fully formed idea of what the final film would look like, other than that it would be all archival. And it is! Initially, I did expect Our Nixon to be more minimal, in the tradition of avant-garde cinema, like my previous films Oona’s Veil, Across the Rappahannock, or A Reasonable Man. In other words, a movie that would show at art museums or microcinemas. But as soon as we launched our first Kickstarter project, it quickly became clear that Our Nixon had the potential to reach a much larger, general audience. However, in order to do so, it was going to need more context. We were going to have to figure out how to use the home movies to illuminate the story of the Nixon administration, rather than just as curious historical artifacts.
I wanted the film to be good, and the initial cuts were far too opaque to be successful. While there was a certain pleasure in the purity of just using the Super 8 films and the secret White House tapes, it was ultimately unsatisfying, because the material had the potential to provide a much richer portrait of the Nixon White House. Still, I do think that impulse to keep Our Nixon as minimal as possible helped shape the final film, because we thought very carefully about what kinds of materials to incorporate, and avoided bringing in new elements unless there was a strong narrative reason to use them. I think my idea of what the film should be evolved along with the film itself, and I’m really happy with the results.
PL: There were some times throughout this process when we got some negative feedback. Sometimes it felt like a LOT of negative feedback. I always took that way harder than you did. Why were you so able to remain confident about the movie, even when others weren’t?
BF: I didn’t think that most of the negative feedback was substantively very interesting, so it was easy for me to ignore. As you’ve said many times, the point of a test screening is to identify problems, not learn how to fix them. When people were confused, we added context. But when they insisted we make a more conventional film, I just ignored them. And when they complained that they couldn’t identify the filmmakers’ point of view, I knew we were doing something right. There’s nothing interesting about a pro-Nixon or anti-Nixon film. We tried to capture the experience of working for Nixon, in order to help people understand Nixon’s relationship to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin. People say you can learn a lot about a person by how they talk to a waiter. Maybe you can learn something about a president by how he interacts with his staff.
PL: What is your favorite reaction to the film that you’ve seen or heard or read so far?
BF: I was really happy when Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward, complimented the film’s ability to humanize Haldeman. We struggled to convey a sense of his personality and motivations, and I’m glad we succeeded. My favorite comment about the film came from the SXSW usher who said, “It was so much better than I thought it would be!” Really, what more can you ask for?
PL: What advice would you give someone who is just about to make their first feature documentary?
BF: Be ambitious and don’t compromise. A lot of people will push you to make your movie more conventional, more familiar. But that is boring and we can do better. Challenge yourself to challenge your audience. It’s easy to make movies that people already want to see, but it’s not very interesting. Make the movies that people don’t know they want yet. And train yourself to recognize bad advice. There’s no one way to make a movie. To borrow an old saw, there are two kinds of movies: good ones and the rest. There’s no way to guarantee you’ll make a good movie, but it’s easy to guarantee you won’t. When someone says you can’t do something in a movie, it usually means you’re on the right track.
Brian L. Frye: When I first told you about the Nixon Staff Super-8 Collection, what made you interested in collaborating on a film? Did you see a connection to your previous films?
PL: Well, at first I thought you would do something with it, and I think I encouraged you. I was drawn in by the mystery; I really couldn’t imagine what those films looked like and I just wanted to see them. I don’t remember at what point we decided to do it together. I know that I felt we were a really good team and could work well together. You and I make such different films… yours more minimal and mysterious, mine more concerned with storytelling and clarity. But this project seemed like one where we could bring our different skills and sensibilities together. I did see some connections to my previous films, in that I’ve worked with a lot of found footage, but the whole thing felt very, very new, and it felt like an adventure. I had no idea where it would go.
BF: What was your reaction when you saw the Super-8 films for the first time?
PL: At first, every single thing about them was fascinating. I couldn’t get enough of the long shots of Nixon supporters at rallies and things like that. I just had never seen anything like it; it showed a side of America in that era that most films set in that period don’t show. Without realizing it, I think I had always thought all of America was out burning their draft cards and growing out their hair. Looking at this footage made me realize in a very visceral way that most of America at that time was what we might now call Square America. That the counterculture was the minority of people.
But on a more “what was life like working for Nixon?” level, I also loved the motorcade footage, the pomp and circumstance of head of state welcoming ceremonies, and the travelogue footage of Iran, Guam, Russia and so on. Overall, there was a sense of joyfulness, playfulness and awe that I think we both really responded to.
Then it got kind of boring and tedious, because it really is a lot of repetition: Nixon gives a speech, Nixon gets off an airplane, Nixon gets on an airplane, staff stand around while something important is happening (but we don’t know what’s happening) off-camera. So there was this fascinating balance of feeling the awe of being present at these world-changing events and also experiencing the total boredom of being at work all the time.
BF: What was it like working with Francisco Bello to edit the film?
PL: It was amazing!!! Of course I had never worked with an editor before, and I was scared. I was scared we would choose the wrong person who wouldn’t understand our vision, and it would turn into a disaster. We had been working on the film for over a year by the time we hired Francisco, so it took a little time to achieve the total mind-meld where he just instinctively knew what I was looking for. But the primary feeling I experienced the minute he entered the process was relief. I was relieved to see the film racing forward, whereas previously it had been only inching forward. I was relieved that Francisco was fast and professional and unbelievably smart and creative, and a lot of fun to be around, too. He brought so much to the film, and truly more than anyone else allowed us to make this film, and for that I am beyond grateful.
BF: What were the biggest technical challenges in making the film?
PL: The biggest nightmare was going through the process of replacing every frame of the film, by eye, with the new 4K scans after we got to picture lock. It was a step in the online edit which was very unique to this film. (In general, our online edit was pretty intense and time consuming, because we were working with all these different formats.) It was such a nightmare that it is truly not worth going into. All I can say is thank God for Francisco and for our able assistant editors, Kat Hunt and Alison Kobayashi. It was weeks and weeks of just mind-meltingly complex stuff. To any editors out there rolling their eyes: no, trust me; what we had to do was insane!
BF: How did making Our Nixon affect your approach to Nuts, your new film project?
PL: Well, first of all it gave me a lot more confidence that I could trust my own vision and not need other people’s approval and blessing quite so much. I guess a little bit of success should translate into some amount of self confidence, right? But also having gone through the process of putting together a feature-length film once has helped me make better choices about story structure and also workflow. Nuts is actually a much more ambitious film than Our Nixon in terms of all the different things I’m trying to do with it, but now I feel like I know enough to pull it off. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.