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

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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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The Dark Knight Is Returning to Theaters, Just Ahead of 10th Anniversary
DC Comics, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
DC Comics, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Believe it or not, July 18 will mark the 10th anniversary of the release of The Dark Knight, the second entry in Christopher Nolan’s game-changing superhero movie trilogy. To mark the occasion, Showcase Cinemas—the movie theater chain behind the Cinema de Lux experience—is bringing the movie back to select theaters on the east coast for limited screenings on February 8 and February 11, /Film reports.

Many people consider The Dark Knight the best film in the Batman franchise (Tim Burton and LEGO-fied movies included). The film currently holds a 94 percent “fresh” rating with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the highest-rated movie in the Batman universe.

Much of the film’s acclaim came from Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as The Joker—a role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (making him the only actor to win that award posthumously). Even Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne’s ever-dutiful butler and BFF Alfred, admitted that he wasn’t sold on the idea of bringing The Joker back into Batman’s cinematic universe, after the character was so ably played by Jack Nicholson in Burton’s 1989 film, until he found out Ledger would be taking the role.

“You don’t try and top Jack,” was Caine’s original thought. But when Nolan informed the actor that he was casting Ledger, that changed things. “I thought: ‘Now that’s the one guy that could do it!’ My confidence came back,” Caine told Empire Magazine.

To find out if The Dark Knight is playing at a theater near you, visit Showcase Cinemas’s website. If it’s not, don’t despair: With the official anniversary still six months away, other theaters are bound to have the same idea.

[h/t: /Film]

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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-ALIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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