Working within specific constraints can unleash the flow of new ideas rather than hindering them. This has been proven across literature, music, art, and business.
Nowhere are the limitations more rigid (or more freeing) than for a nonfiction filmmaker crafting a story set in the past, using existing source material. One exceptional example is The Reagan Show, opening today at the Metrograph in New York City and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena (available July 4th on VOD). The Reagan Show, and the four previously released films listed below, represent a dazzling range of what can happen when filmmakers work magic with what they have, or create what they don’t.
The Reagan Show: our camera-ready POTUS
At the outset of an archival-based project, filmmakers can expect a slew of potential constraints. Footage, photos and audio may be scarce, in poor condition, or require extensive research to locate. Usable material may come with copyright restrictions or prohibitive licensing fees. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez faced a different challenge entirely when they embarked on making The Reagan Show. The footage they wanted to work with was of a specific type and source, but there was over 1,000 hours of it. And perhaps more challenging, they had tasked themselves with turning a critical eye on our most camera-ready president, using footage the White House had shot to manufacture his flattering public persona.
There were infinite possible films they could have made with that much material, but Pettengill and Velez were inspired by the compound challenges of their narrow, yet expansive, task. “As an archival researcher and archival producer, I work a lot with archival footage, and I always want to consider historical materials within the context under which they were produced,” said Pettengill in an interview with Women in Hollywood’s Kelsey Moore. “Rather than applying the tapes to a pre-determined story or cherry-picking it for illustrative purposes, we sat in both the network news and the Reagan-authored WHTV tapes, and reckoned with it as a body of footage that was shot for specific purposes and told from very specific perspectives.”
The Reagan administration ran an unprecedented, nonstop PR machine, through which the president “was actively creating this idea of American society as he wanted it to be,” said Pettengill in an interview with Pamela Cohn for a 2014 issue of Filmmaker (while the film was still in progress). “He painted this picture of the white-picket-fence, ideal America where problems didn’t exist and then sold that to the American people quite successfully.” It was a picture that left out people of color, Pettengill said, or any mention of the AIDS epidemic, among other glaring omissions. What the White House cameras left out, is ultimately as important to the story as what they included.
The filmmakers made decision upon decision, and used revealing outtakes to add commentary and ironic humor. They peppered in broadcast news footage for context and punctuation, and to bring the outside world in. The resulting film is a fresh and vital new work, filtered first through the Reagan-era republican agenda, and then through the childhood memories and contemporary vantage points of Velez and Pettengill, self-described “Reagan babies,” who were finishing their film during the campaign of the second president to promise he’d “make America great again.”
I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin lives on
James Baldwin passed away during Ronald Reagan’s final term as president, but in Raoul Peck’s 2017 Academy Award nominated I Am Not Your Negro (2016) his voice is vital and resonant as ever. Peck has said his desire to tell Baldwin’s story was percolating for close to 35 years, but the project started to take shape when he decided to anchor it with an unpublished piece of Baldwin’s writing. Remember This House, given to Peck by Baldwin’s sister, contained Baldwin’s notes for a memoir he intended to write about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Interviewed at AFI Fest, Peck recalled “with the help of Remember This House as the main storyline, I assembled a coherent, dramatically impactful first manuscript… In the meantime, my team had already started working on the archival research and acquisition process and we basically went through everything that existed about, with and around James Baldwin in film, radio and television.” Peck and team sourced a staggering collage of elements, from old Hollywood films featuring black actors, to footage from the ‘60s, up through Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, and beyond. To give life to the narration, comprised strictly of Baldwin’s words, Peck wanted not an impersonation of Baldwin, but an emotional performance. He brought on Samuel L. Jackson, whose reading electrifies the film for contemporary audiences.
Our Nixon: home (Oval Office) movies
Our 37th President didn’t have hours of staged material like Reagan, but he did have a camera-happy staff. To make Our Nixon (2013), Director Penny Lane and Producer Brian L. Frye scoured the 500 forgotten reels of Super-8 that Nixon’s closest aides, H. R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, had shot during his presidency. One challenge Lane and Frye faced was to provide enough context so that the home-movie-style scenes they selected would comprise more than “curious historical artifacts,” and achieve their full narrative potential.
When Penny and Brian interviewed each other for the Cinereach blog in 2013, Brian talked about how they had set out with “an impulse to keep Our Nixon as minimal as possible,” and that “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.” When combined with carefully chosen segments from Nixon’s own (infamously) recordings, this approach resulted in creating an uncanny sense of identification with the day-to-day perspectives, of the men who shot the film (and who later faced the consequences of Watergate).
Early cuts were “far too opaque to be successful,” Brian continued, so ultimately the filmmakers found ways to work newscasts from the day, and interviews recorded in later years, into the film. From there, Our Nixon took shape an impressionistic but powerful and cohesive story about the people behind the history.
We’ve republished Penny and Brian’s full self-interview here.
Best of Enemies: the great (televised) debates
Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies (2015) trucks back to just before the Nixon administration began, when Dick was still a candidate. When a friend shared a bootleg copy of the debates ABC had staged between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968—an accidental ratings coup when it aired opposite the Democratic and Republican national conventions on more popular networks—the filmmakers were transfixed. They knew they had something contemporary audiences would love, too. It was not an easy task, but not for lack of other material to flesh out their story.
Interviewed for PBS and Independent Lens, the filmmakers recalled: “We had a fundamental cinematic challenge: how to make a visually compelling movie about two talking heads.”
But their two subjects had lived “well-televised lives,” so Gordon and Neville were soon sorting through a wealth of possible material, with their work was “bolstered, too, by the fact that the dialog between these men was fast, sharp, and as brutal as a heavyweight championship boxing match.” Interviewed in Indiewire, Neville remembered their five year deep-dive as “a massive hunt for footage. One of the big treasures was ABC itself. They have an amazing archive and we found so much stuff buried in cans of films that had never seen the light of day.”
Teenage: rebellion’s new voice
Matt Wolf and Jon Savage knew they had their work cut out for them when they began reimagining Savage’s 500-page book as a “living collage” for the feature documentary, Teenage (2013). In their story of youth culture’s birth across decades and countries, authentic youth voices would be critical, but not easy to come by. After experimentation and trial and error, they conceived an approach more akin to historical fiction than traditional history, and wove quotes from teenage diaries, journalistic sources, books, and other written testimony with scripted lines to create the film’s unconventional narration. Wolf directed recording sessions where actors performed the script as the disembodied voices of an American boy and girl, a German girl, and a British boy.
Archival Researcher Rosemary Rotondi did eight major rounds of research using 100 different archives, historical societies, and libraries, providing the filmmakers with over 90 hours of footage and 4,000 archival images to pare down. “The obsessive, methodological labor involved in navigating this sea of material was a big part the creative process,” Matt Wolf has written, “providing the time and space to generate and percolate a wealth of ideas. “
Wolf also produced some “archival” material of his own. He and his team shot cinematic recreations, carefully crafted to look like home movies and newsreels, to illustrate the stories of four real teenagers nearly lost to history: Bright Young Thing Brenda Dean Paul, African American Boy Scout Warren Wall, Hitler Youth Melita Maschmann, and Hamburg Swing Kid Tommie Scheel.
Where to watch them all
Whether challenged by too much of a good thing, or the need to invent what could not be sourced, all five of these films turned potential problems into creative springboards, and pushed the boundaries of what we expect from future films that aim to show us our past. The films are surprising in the vitality they bring to the screen, and they remind us to keep rediscovering the histories that speak to our present.
The Reagan Show
I Am Not Your Negro
Best of Enemies