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