Our Nixon: An Interview with Director Penny Lane

Our Nixon PosterOur Nixon, the latest film from director Penny Lane, attempts to shed light on a story that we all think we know, that of the Richard Nixon presidency, and the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The “our” in this case, is not the American public, as President Nixon’s legacy and public image is still a complicated one, to say the least. Rather, here, the “our” is comprised of chief of staff Bob Haldeman, special assistant Dwight Chapin, and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman. These men faced intense scrutiny during the Watergate scandal and trial, and spent time in federal prison for their involvement and perjury. But they also had a great time before that fateful event, as they traveled the world with President Nixon, taking hours of Super 8 footage that was summarily gathered by investigators as evidence and locked away for decades.

Lane rescues this footage and puts it to good use. Pairing it with the audio of the White House tapes and other interviews, she paints a picture of three men who would do anything for their president, and whose loyalty ultimately cost them their jobs and tarnished our image of the office. It is fascinating to think of these issues as we watch them make their way around the world, spend time lounging in the sun, or witness president Nixon’s conversation with Neil Armstrong after he sets foot on the moon. But add to this a healthy dose of Nixon’s famous paranoia and diatribes against those against him, and you have an interesting story to tell. While it does not necessarily transform our understanding of those years, it does help to expand our collective memory, by using the filmed memories of those closest to the president himself.

Our Nixon recently arrived on DVD, and I interviewed director Penny Lane about obtaining the original footage, the process of creating a dialogue with the men without being able to actually interview them, and how her perspective on Nixon changed with the project.

-Rob Ribera

1. Did you have any hesitation about going into this project because there is still a lingering sentiment about this time period and these men?

I would say the opposite is true. If nobody had feelings about this time period and these men, why would anyone care about the film?

2. How did you first get involved with the project?

Brian Frye told me about the home movies in 2008. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I approached him about collaborating (we co-produced the film).

3. What was your process for going through all of the hours of footage?

Brian and I got a residency at Yaddo for about a month, and we used that time to just look at all the footage and start to categorize and cut. Some of the very first scenes we cut that month actually made it into the film. We were just looking in a very open way, to see what we recognized, what we didn’t recognize, what patterns and themes and feelings would emerge. We saw some things right away: the combination of everyday, repetitive tedium and awe-inspiring grandeur, for example, and the dramatic irony that infuses every frame. The idea for the fllm, and everything that was added later, all came from that initial watching period. The footage told us what it wanted to be.

4. Can you talk about your initial project to digitize all of the media? Did you think that it could be a huge gamble site-unseen?

We didn’t really think it was a gamble. We were certain there was some kind of film or art project in there; we just had no idea what it might be!

5. Sound becomes a bit of a challenge here as well because of the medium. Was it a natural decision to layer the film with other interviews and the Nixon tapes?

Yes, it seemed fairly natural. Even during that first month, we were listening to Nixon Tapes as a way to get ourselves into the present tense and get a feel for the everyday lives of our characters. It felt like the correct thing to do, right away, to start to layer the home movies and the Nixon Tapes. The interviews we initially began to collect for research purposes, not thinking we’d use them in the film. Our concept initially was “history only in the present tense,” so the interviews from after 1973 fell outside our purview. It was a bit later into the edit that we realized we really needed the voices of our characters “in retrospect.”

6. How much research did you do beforehand?

All of the research was done concurrently with the edit. We read biographies and memoirs and various kinds of histories of the period. We began with our experience of looking at the home movies, and built our research process around figuring out what we needed to do to put them in some kind of context.

7. Using only the found footage makes it different to format it as a straight Q&A–did you have questions in mind that you wanted to find answers to, or did you just let it figure itself out?

This was the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding, aspect of the production. I really wished that other interviewers over the years had asked the questions I wanted to ask, like, “What made you believe in Nixon?” and “What were your personal goals when you went to Washington?” But most of the interviews we could find were, naturally, all about Watergate. But as we went along, Brian and I realized that what we were revealing was actually a big part of the film’s meaning: what is, and isn’t, included in the historical record is an interesting and revealing subject (probably more than my questions!).

8. In the middle of the film there is the call to Neil Armstrong–this inspiring moment that we almost forget because we associate the moon with Kennedy. Can you talk a little bit about this powerful moment and how it relates to the Nixon legacy?

In my mind’s eye, I had never put Nixon in that scene. As most people, I think, I do associate the moon landing with Kennedy, despite the fact that (duh!) Nixon was President when it happened. I thought that this moment was so powerful and so grand, and seeing it from the point of view of the folks working inside the White House was simply awe-inspiring — how could we not use it? It was one of the first scenes we edited together. It represented so clearly the hope and idealism that we saw in the home movies. And the successes and promise of the Nixon presidency, which have been more or less eclipsed by Watergate.

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